Thursday, 7 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #6: Finishing

Two people are chatting. 'I'm writing a novel,' says one, whereupon the other says: 'Yes, neither am I.' (Peter Cook)

In 2020, I started writing a novel. I know, I know. Neither are you. It was based on two characters I created for a play I wrote called The God Particle, about a vicar and a quantum physicist. I wrote the first 12000 words of the novel. And then I rewrote them. And then I stopped. Why?

There were a couple of reasons. The first was that the opportunity to pitch for some work came along that I was excited by and offered me a chance to expand my skills – and get paid. So I threw my time into pitching for an episode of this TV series. I managed to get commissioned and wrote it. It's being filmed later this year. 

The economic realities were that this was more likely to pay off, and pay better, than a novel. I also reckoned that a lot of other people were using lockdown to write novels. The stack of novel manuscripts would be higher than ever by the end of the year, so an already difficult task of having a novel published had gotten even harder. So I hit pause on the novel.

I was ditching it - as I suggested in the previous post - but I was okay about walking away, knowing I wouldn't have time to go back to it for a while. I had to write a non-fiction book in which I have established myself a little more (the comedy/religion niche). That book, called The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer, is out in June this year. And then I developed and produced my own video course called Writing Your Sitcom.

So what do I do in 2021? The first thing I’m going to do is going back to the novel. I’m going to finish it. Why?

I know I said to ditch projects that are just hanging around, feeling stale and holding you back. I still say that. But absence can make the heart grow fonder. The idea might still be nagging away at you. It might turn out you are passionate about that idea after all. In which case, go back to it. It's fine. There are no rules here.

Your Writing Slate

If you’re serious about being a writer, you need a number of ideas in various states of development. You need a spec script to show what you can do, and that you can execute your idea and show your voice. But you also need another strong idea to talk about in meetings. And ideally you need one more that can be that final Hail Mary pass once your first two ideas have been rebuffed.

So, having urged you to ditch a project and start something new – I’m also saying you can go back to something you abandoned last year, or a few years ago, if you feel you have unfinished business. It may be that you have fresh eyes and new ideas on the problems that caused you to give up on it in the first place. It may be that it feels ‘of the moment’.

But it may be that it feels redundant, stale or dull. In which case move on.


Timing is important. An idea that felt like an orphan a few years earlier can suddenly feel ‘of the moment’ and find a home.

If Richard Hurst and I had pitched our bomb-disposal comedy, Bluestone 42, to BBC3 a couple of years earlier, when the war in Afghanistan was really costly in terms of human life, it would have seemed in really poor taste.

If we’d pitched it a couple of years later, if would have felt like we’d missed the boat. Ideas have a timeliness about them.

Maybe now is the time for that old idea. Or a new idea. But timing is important.

But there is another reason to pick up something back up and finish it.

You may be an inveterate starter. And not a finisher.

In which case, you plan to finish something and make it as good as you can, rather than being distracted by the shiny new idea.

Know Thyself

Are you the kind of writer who loves the new thing? That’s me. I have no trouble filling a blank sheet of paper with dozens of ideas, stories or characters. But I get bored of them quite quickly. Once I’ve outlined the story, or written the first draft, my interest starts to wane. I’m not a completer-finisher. So I need to recognised what sort of writer I am – and make adjustments to my strategy accordingly.

I need to finish things. And not only ‘get them done’ but spend more time polishing them and making them as good as I can. Maybe that's something you need to do to be a better writer.

No script is perfect. (Except Toy Story 2). Everything can be improved, normally by making it tighter. But there are many other tweaks, tucks and trims that can be made. And of course, you might to be honest about the fact that the Second Act really doesn’t work, and you can’t just paper over the cracks, but tear it all down and start again, at least on that section.

So that’s one of the reasons I’m going back to my novel. I need to finish more things. Plus, I’ve done most of the hard work in terms of the characters, story and research. Wish me luck! And best of luck with that novel you're not writing either.

One Last Thing

If you have a script that needs finishing, improving, tightening or tweak, I've produced a PDF called 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. It has clear action points and specific things to do that should lift your script and make is sparkle. Get it here.

But if you're thinking no amount of spit and polish is going to improve that script and you want to start again, why not consider doing my Writing Your Sitcom course? Now could well be the time to invest in your career, and a new script that shows what you can really do. More info here.

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